It took Yoshitomo Tsutsugo a few years to realize his potential, and now the left-handed hitting slugger wants other Japanese to learn that baseball is as much about joy and heart as practice and discipline.
A year after playing 10 games of winter ball in the Dominican Republic, the 25-year-old Yokohama BayStars and Samurai Japan cleanup hitter spent much of this past offseason with his childhood club, the Sakai Big Boys.
“When I saw the way little kids are taught to play in the Dominican and in America, I realized it was completely different than how it is in Japan,” he told Kyodo News in a February interview in Okinawa. “If Japanese kids don’t win, someone gets angry. You just can’t grow your game in circumstances where whatever you do someone gets angry. I think that’s when some possible superstars have that potential crushed.
“I went to the ground a lot, had fun with the kids, played ball with them and so on. I was in heaven there on the field with the Sakai Big Boys’ players, and was thinking if only there were more teams like that — for the sake of Japan, for the sake of Japanese baseball.”
Tsutsugo, who with Alex Ramirez is now under his third manager with the BayStars, said things have changed since he and Ramirez were teammates and the old pro was teaching the eager youngster the ropes. For one thing, Ramirez is now the boss, and for another, Tsutsugo, his captain, has inherited Ramirez’s role as the guy who keeps the other players loose and jokes around to cut the tension.
“The manager places great importance on team atmosphere, and I am conscious of performing that role,” Tsutsugo said. “I am cheerful by nature, but this is about the team as a whole and involves different things.
“My first thought was, ‘Am I up to this (captain’s role)?’ But now I have been able to think about the team as a whole. Because I need to think of the team, I look at everyone differently, and because of that, I learn more than I did before.”
His experience in the Dominican Republic, where many players go without contracts trying to show big league clubs what they can do, taught him baseball can be joyful even under the most stressful situations.
“I felt the players there are really hungry, have strong desire. They face very severe situations, not like we do in Japan. They all played with a lot of heart. More than I could in Japan, I learned what it means to play with heart. They’re battling for jobs, but still, they are out there having fun.”
As much as Tsutsugo speaks of learning, he is the Samurai Japan player most others say they study most when it comes to hitting. So who does he watch on the nation’s top team?
“There are so many amazing players that you can learn something from, whoever you watch,” Tsutsugo said. “(Shortstop Hayato) Sakamoto from the Giants, for example, is so good at handling inside pitches, and he’s spoken with me about that.
“When I started playing professionally, I realized we had a team like this and felt I wanted to do my best playing for Samurai Japan. The eyes of the Japanese baseball community, indeed everyone, will be watching these (World Baseball Classic) games carefully, and being there comes with a sense of responsibility. Frankly speaking, the first time I was chosen I was really happy. I haven’t felt pressure, but that may change, still.”
One thing that has definitely changed is Tsutsugo’s ability to drive the ball to the opposite field. Through 2015, roughly 75 percent of his hits to third and left had been singles. An adjustment to his contact point — that he refined as the season went along — saw him double his slugging average to left and made him even more dangerous to right.
“I adjusted my contact farther forward toward the pitcher, the place where my body is best able to really hit,” he said. “I’d been trying to master that and was finally able to own it.”